Earlier this month, clashes erupted between the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and FSA-affiliated groups. When the gunfire stopped, the moderates were able to negotiate a ceasefire deal that represented a body blow to Jabhat al-Nusra's influence in the area: The jihadist group agreed to ask foreign jihadists in its ranks to leave the city, "as there is no fighting in Abu Kamal and so there is no need for wearing masks or even carrying arms." The groups also agreed that security in the city must be handled exclusively by the "security brigade," and other FSA-affiliated rebel groups. Finally, it prohibited Jabhat al-Nusra from establishing checkpoints in the city, and stipulated that houses can only be raided through a court order and by FSA brigades.
Remarkably, Jabhat al-Nusra issued a two-page apology to the people of Abu Kamal, in which it blamed the FSA for forcing the war on the jihadist organization. It said that it had pulled its fighters from the frontlines to defend itself against "groups that seek to establish a secular state." Jabhat al-Nusra asserted in the apology that it could easily defeat the FSA -- but the fact that it tried to reach out to the public, rather than engage in further confrontation, suggests that it's mindful of growing public opposition.
Abu Kamal is predominantly tribal and more conservative than most areas in Syria, but this development proves that it's not a natural breeding ground for jihadist groups. Extremists have tried repeatedly to establish a foothold there -- when the regime's forces left the region, jihadists presented themselves as a force that could get things done. They distributed badly-needed cooking gas, fuel, and foodstuffs to the local population. Meanwhile, the FSA groups stumbled, neglecting the population and focusing on their own financial gain. Jihadists, however, are their own worst enemies -- as time passed, the local population grew restless of their medieval style of rule.
Al Qaeda's operatives in Syria have worked hard to avoid the mistakes they committed in Iraq, where they alienated potential supporters with brutal, indiscriminate tactics. The leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, has repeatedly called on his followers to be flexible on religious matters that are not usul -- or fundamentals -- to avoid antagonizing local populations. But that sentiment has not trickled down to rank-and-file jihadists. In addition to the fighting against fellow rebel brigades, they have shot at Syrians protesting outside their headquarters in Raqqa, executed a teenage boy in Aleppo, and detained Italian priest Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, a longtime advocate of religious coexistence in Syria.
Jihadists know that the single greatest threat to their existence is not drone attacks or a regime military offensive, but rejection by local populations. They are paranoid about a repeat of the rise of "Awakening Councils," or sahwat, which began in Iraq's Anbar Province after al Qaeda alienated the Sunni population of the area. Sahwat is a pejorative term among jihadists, who believe that the Americans pitted Sunnis against each other in Iraq, only to betray them three years later by handing power to a Shiite government that marginalized their sect.
Syria has not yet seen the rise of sahwat -- but the jihadists' fears will likely be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Their attacks on rebel groups may be designed to forestall the very possibility of such an awakening: Many of the groups it has targeted are part of an umbrella organization known as Jabhat al-Asala wa Tanmia -- a Salafist-leaning group believed to be funded by private donors in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which has been vehemently attacked by some Gulf citizens who support jihadi groups as sahwites.
Syrians' growing hostility towards jihadists is not the result of a push from outsider powers -- it comes from genuine public concerns about their presence. As people in rebel-held areas no longer have a need for the jihadists' ruthlessness in battle, moderate groups will have a new opportunity to win the hearts and minds of the local populations in liberated cities and towns, as well as on the front lines. If the world wants an ally in their fight against creeping extremism, they will find a broad array of Syrians willing to help them drive the jihadists out.